Saturday, May 01, 2004

In Flanders fields 

A famous poem from World War I, written in 1915 by, as it happens, a Canadian: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD.

Here is the names of the dead part:

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
(via Arlington Cemetary.net)

And here is the part I find problematic—the "stay the course" part.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

What constitutes betrayal of the war dead? MacCrae suggests not "tak[ing] up the quarrel with the foe." The problem with this view of World War I is that it doesn't seem to be right. Take the Versailles settlement: that certainly finished the "quarrel" with Germany. But if stopping the blockade of Germany immediately after the war, and an easier settlement, had prevented the rise of Hitler, would that have betrayed the dead? I don't think so. If a policy of unconditional surrendur had not been followed, and a peace made with Germany in 1916 (say) had prevented the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler too, would that have betrayed the dead? Again, I don't think so.

The point is not to play games of what-if, but to say that war aims change—and not to change when change is called for betrays not only the dead but the living. (Economists, I believe, classify problems like this under the heading of sunk costs.) "Stay the course" is a propaganda slogan, not a policy.

But I can think of two more parallels between World War I and Iraq.

The first is the parallel between the Chateau Generals of World War I and the chickenhawks of the Iraq war. True, the Chateau Generals actually did serve, unlike the Chickenhawks. However, both share a remarkable ability to send soldiers to their deaths while risking nothing themselves.

The deeper parallel is that the Chateau Generals had no concept of how to fight the war they actually ended up fighting. Not having evolved a doctrine for trench warfare, they persisted in sending men protected only by cloth into killing fields miles in extent—until wiser politicians refused to send them more men. Similarly, our chickenhawks persist in fighting the war they know, against states, when in fact Al Qaeda,and whichever of their successors come out of the blowback from Iraq, are post-modern, non-state actors, and all the more dangerous for that.

Rushing more tanks (devised in World War I, almost a century ago) to Iraq is simply a confession of failure. It's a confession of failure in the Iraq war—can we fight photographs of US personnel torturing Iraqis with tanks? And it's a confession of failure in what should be a campaign against the fundamentalists of AQ—how does sending more tanks to Iraq protect us against, for example, loose nukes? Do you feel safer because we're sending more tanks to Iraq? I certainly don't.

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